The Commercialization of Journalism
Professional journalism emerged not to the opposition of most media owners, but to the contrary, with their active sponsorship. There was a struggle between owners and progressive journalists to determine the contours of professional journalism in its first generation or two, but by mid-century it had settled for the most part into its current form. It made sense for media owners to grant some autonomy to journalists because it gave their product more credibility and worked to enhance their commercial prospects. The autonomy it granted journalists was always relative and, as we discussed, the manner in which the professional code evolved put significant limitations on the capacity of professional journalism to serve as a democratic force. Moreover, the professional journalism “deal” was never made in a formal contract, and newsworkers unions never were powerful enough to wrestle control over journalism (and budgets) from media owners in their contract negotiations. By the 1980s the “deal” made less and less sense for media owners. Relaxation of media ownership regulations along with general market pressures led to wave after wave of media dealmaking, with the largest firms that owned news media much larger relative to the balance of the corporate community than their predecessors had been. These firms, often media conglomerates, that paid vast sums to purchase news media wanted and needed to generate significant returns to pay down debt and satisfy investors; to these firms the idea that they should provide some degree of autonomy to their news divisions became increasingly nonsensical, except for their public relations pronouncements. After all, the workers in the other properties of their media empires were not granted such autonomy; they were expected to deliver directly and immediately to the firm’s bottom line success.
In this context, journalism, too, increasingly became subjected to an explicit commercial regimentation; the protection from commercial pressure provided by professionalism was undermined. While this is the primary factor and the overarching factor to explain recent developments in journalism, it is not the sole factor. The rise of new commercial news media enabled by new technologies—in particular round-the-clock TV news channels and the Internet—have increased the need for on-going attention-getting stories, with less emphasis on their significance of the story by traditional standards (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 1999). Libel court rulings and government secrecy laws and regulations have made it much more difficult and cost prohibitive to do investigative work on corporations and government affairs. One of the ironies of neoliberalism—as manifested in the Bush–Cheney variant—is that its contempt for government (and much professed love of the wisdom of private citizens) does not extend therefore to encouraging the citizenry to have much of a clue of what the government is doing in its name.11 Likewise, as journalism becomes more explicitly directed by market concerns, the overall depoliticization of society will hardly encourage the development of political coverage. And finally, as I discuss in the next section, the conservative campaign against the “liberal media” has produced a chilling effect on journalism’s willingness to ask tough questions of many of those in power. In combination, over the past two decades this has led to a sustained attack on the professional ideal, a sea change in journalism, and a crisis in the field greater than any other period with the possible exception of the late Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.
The commercial attack on the professional autonomy of journalism has been widely chronicled and assumes many forms. 12 I highlight the main trends, and some of the more striking implications for democracy. For starters, the trend has been toward a cutback in the resources allocated to journalism. By the 1990s, if not earlier, commercial news media were “forced to embrace the financial discipline required by parent companies that no longer looked at news as a golden child and freespending spirit even when it refused to be bound by life’s practicalities” (Greppi, 2001, p. 3). 13 A 2002 Project for Excellence in Journalism survey of US journalists found them “a grumpy lot,” due largely to budget cuts, lower salaries, no raises, and job insecurity (Trigoboff, 2002c, p. 12). There was a virtual news room uprising at the Wall Street Journal in December 2002, for example, when parent company Dow Jones announced sweeping cuts in the number of senior journalists, while the firm’s executive ranks were untouched (Tharp, 2002). The media firms argue that such cutbacks are necessary to remain competitive, but many journalists claim that giant firms use their market power to strip down resources for news to make a short-term profit grab. In 2001 the publisher of the San Jose Mercury-News, Jay Harris, resigned his position to protest at what he regarded as the entirely unnecessary editorial cutbacks at his paper mandated by parent company Knight-Ridder. As Harris put it, his newspaper, like most others, was raking in enormous profits. The cutbacks were unjustifiable (Barringer, 2001, p. A10; Laventhol, 2001, pp. 18–22).
Lowballing editorial budgets has proven extremely profitable, at least in the short term. The great commercial success story of US journalism has been the Fox News Channel, which has cut costs to the bone by basically replacing more expensive conventional journalism with celebrity pontificators (Walley, 2002, pp. 1, 22). Using this formula, Fox News was able to generate roughly equivalent profits to CNN by 1999–2000, while spending far less than CNN to do so. 14 The operating profit at News Corporation’s US cable channels, which includes the Fox News Network, more than tripled from the third quarter of 2001 to the third quarter of 2002 (The Economist, 2002c, p. 60). The rise of media conglomerates has made it far easier for firms to spread their editorial budgets across several different media, so that a key trend has been to have the same journalist report for a media firm’s newspaper, website, TV station, and radio station, or some combination of the above (Goldsmith and McClintock, 2001, pp. 1, 58). The Internet only accelerates this process. This provides much of the incentive for firms to become large conglomerates, as it gives them tremendous cost savings compared to those firms that do not have a similar arsenal of media properties (Campbell, M., 2002). Indeed, even separate firms are partnering (especially where regulations prohibit them from merging) to spread the editorial budgets across several media (Hoag, 2002). When ABC News and CNN were negotiating a merger in 2002, one observer deemed it “an unholy alliance that could only make sense to cost-cutters” (Trigoboff and McClellan, 2002, p. 1). One Wall Street analyst thought the merger would lead to cost savings (including labor costs) of $100 million to $200 million (Lowry, T., 2002). As Av Westin, the six-time Emmy award-winning CBS journalist put it in 2001: “To expect that any corporate manager will re-invest savings in bet ter news programming is, I fear, a delusion” (Westin, 2001, p. 35).
The effects of this budget-cutting mania on journalism arguably have been entirely negative. It has meant a relaxation or alteration, sometimes severe, of professional news standards. Professional standards have not collapsed entirely. There remains a ruthless requirement that journalists not invent sources or consciously lie in their journalism. And journalists exposed for blatantly violating these norms will usually be fired and have to move on to new professions (Barringer, 2002b; New York Times, 2002, p. A26). But the nature of what gets covered and how it gets covered, the meat and potatoes of journalism, have changed, all for the worse. Factual accuracy and honesty are all well and good; but it is not the be all and end all of journalism if the story in question concerns a celebrity’s trial or a donkey getting a shampoo. The broader question is how the decline in resources and the pressure to generate profits pushes factually accurate journalism to concentrate upon some stories over others. To paraphrase Trudy Lieberman, you can’t report what you don’t pursue (Lieberman, 2000).
And it is here that the attack on professional standards is striking. Fewer reporters means it is easier for public relations executives to get their client’s messages into the news unadulterated by journalism. As two executives for Edelman Public Relations exulted in 2000, as a result of media consolidation and conglomeration, there are fewer reporters and resources, and, therefore, “an increased likelihood that press releases will be used word-for-word, in part if not in whole” (Reeds and Colbourne, 2000, p. 25). International coverage has been a victim of corporate cost cuts. Likewise, investigative journalism—i.e. original research into public issues, not merely reporting on what people in power are talking about, once considered the hallmark of feisty “Fourth Estate” journalism in a free society—is now on the endangered species list. It costs far more to do hard investigations than it does to do official source stenography, and requires skilled experienced journalists. It is much more lucrative to have less experienced journalists fill the news hole with the proclamations and debates of those in power and stories that are easier to cover. Investigative journalism is also suspect in the new world order because the media firm has little incentive to produce a journalism that might enmesh it in conflict with some powerful business or governmental institutions. A five year study of investigative journalism on TV news completed in 2002 determined that investigative journalism has all but disappeared on the nation’s commercial airwaves. Much of what was passed off as original investigative work—put at 1 percent of TV news programming—included stories such as “women illegally injecting silicone at parties” (Just et al., 2002, p. 103). As Charles Lewis points out, a good portion of what appears as investigative work on network TV news is actually the reporting of leaks or government reports where reporters are spoon fed by sources. 15 And even then, as Greg Palast observes, the reporter often just presents it as someone else making the charge, no actual journalistic inquiry into the truth of the matter takes place (Schaeffer, 2002, p. 8).
The combination of increasing need to rely upon public relations and a declining commitment to investigative journalism plays directly into the hands of powerful commercial interests, especially in environmental and public health stories where scientific expertise is necessary to explain public issues. (That is, of course, if the stories are even covered.) It is here, as Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber demonstrate, that corporations have been able to generously provide the media with their self-interested version of science and undermine public understanding of the issues (Rampton and Stauber, 2001).
Indeed, in the current environment, it is decreasingly the case that the reporter will bother to investigate to find out who is telling the truth if there is a factual dispute among official sources. The professional reliance upon official sources as the basis for news—always a problem—has been reduced to the absurd. To investigate factual disputes among official sources would take time and cast the pall of bias over the journalist, depending upon whom the findings favored. When, for example, in 2002 Democrats criticized Halliburton for not paying taxes under Dick Cheney’s leadership, the press ran the charges and a response from Halliburton denying the charges. No journalist, in the professional mainstream press at least, appeared to attempt to investigate to determine who was telling the truth (Bumiller, 2002, p. C5). This environment becomes a scoundrel’s paradise, as one can lie with virtual impunity; it becomes the function of one’s opponents, not journalists, to establish the truth, and one’s opponents can always be dismissed as partisan. It also means that journalists are far more comfortable putting political debate in terms of strategies and spin, rather than digging and locating the actual facts in the matter and letting the chips fall where they may. So it was that much of the press coverage of the political response to the corporate scandals of 2002—to which I return below—dwelled upon how the parties hoped to spin the issue to their advantage. 16 (Need it be pointed out, that this obsession with how politicians spin—to the point that journalists sometimes chastise politicians who fail to spin them effectively—rather than with getting at the truth, breeds a certain contempt for public life. 17) Av Westin chronicled the deterioration of professional journalism practices in detail in his Freedom Forum handbook for TV journalists, and their implications:
As a result, the audience has become accustomed to shoddy reporting to the point that the average viewer does not necessarily expect quality journalism and probably could not discern the difference between a well produced story and a below-average one. The sad truth is that because the mass audience cannot perceive the difference, management is reluctant to spend more money to improve the product. (Westin, 2000, p. 5)
Another area where professional standards have relaxed is with regard to commercialism. Journalists have long faced pressure to shape stories to suit advertisers and owners, and much of the professional code has attempted to prevent this, or at least to minimize this. But corporate management increasingly grinds away at their news divisions to play ball with the commercial needs of the parent firms. Over time it has been successful, and those who survive in the new world order of corporate journalism tend to internalize the necessary values. One survey conducted by the trade publication Electronic Media in 2001 found that the vast majority of TV station executives found their news departments “cooperative” in shaping the news to assist in “nontraditional revenue development,” in which the news department cooperates with major advertisers to co-promote events and uses advertisers as experts in stories (Chunovic, 2002, p. 6). The Pew Research Center survey of journalists released in 2000 found that nearly one-half of journalists acknowledged sometimes consciously engaging in self-censorship to serve the commercial interests of their firm or advertisers, and only one-quarter of them stated this never happened to their knowledge (Pew Research Center, 2000).
This commercial penetration of professional journalism assumes two direct forms. First, commercial interests directly penetrate the news, corrupting its integrity. This process has been well chronicled. 18 To some extent it entails savvy corporate marketers, who produce slick video features to be played on TV newscasts as news stories, but also include a plug for the firm’s product (White, 2001, pp. B1, B6). It also includes when the traditional “news hole” increasingly permits commercial messages, such as selling obituaries, running advertisements on the front page, or putting commercial overlays over editorial content, be it in print or broadcast (Barringer, 2002a, p. C7; Orwall, 2001, p. B8; Wall Street Journal, 2000, p. B4; www.accessatlanta.com, 2001). More ominously, the practice of permitting advertisers to influence the news and how it is covered has become more common. This has been especially true in areas of health care and medicine, where the commercial corruption of reporting has become, pun intended, epidemic (Feder, 2002; Raeburn, 2000, pp. 66, 68; Wang, 2000, pp. 3, 44; Zuckerman, 2002). In 2002 an editor of the New York Post went so far as to inform publicists that a good way to get coverage in her paper was for someone to buy an advertisement (O’Dwyer’s PR Daily, 2002).
Along these lines, the traditional professional prohibition against journalists accepting bribes to write stories in a particular manner is under attack. In an increasingly commercialized journalism “market,” where profit maximization is the firm’s explicit defining objective, journalists figure they might as well get their’s too. So it has developed that journalists have become “pitchmen” for products (Jurkowitz, 2000, p. F6). PBS and CBS correspondent Charlie Rose, for example, was master of ceremonies for Coca-Cola’s annual shareholders meeting in 2002 (Grove, 2002, p. C3). This is strongly encouraged by the tendency to market newscasters as “celebrities” and “brands” as a relatively inexpensive way for media firms to increase ratings, sales, and profits from their news assets (Beatty, 2002; Bernstein, 2000b, p. 60; Campbell, K., 2002a). In 2002, for but one small example, a New York TV weatherman agreed to go out on televised dates, which would be critiqued on air by his colleagues the next day (Huff, 2002a). Accordingly, the prohibition against journalists accepting direct commercial bribes remains, but it is less impressive with all the indirect commercial influences taking place. And the downside of being more explicitly commercial in journalistic practices is not as ominous as it once was. When an ABC medical journalist was suspended for a week for endorsing Tylenol in a radio commercial in 2002, she left ABC to accept a lucrative position at Johnson and Johnson, Tylenol’s parent company (Huff, 2002b). In another case, a Baltimore health reporter who had been fired by a Baltimore TV station because of her “blundering efforts to make money from the medical institutions she had been covering,” was able to parlay her ties into a weekly TV health news program that was described by one Baltimore journalist as “an alarming parade of commercial tie-ins” (Folkenflik, 2002). Like the professional commitment to factual accuracy, the professional prohibition against explicit commercial bribery remains standing, but appears increasingly to be beside the point.
The second form that commercial penetration of journalism assumes is also a traditional problem for commercial journalism that professionalism was meant to eliminate: journalists using their privileges to report favorably on their owner’s commercial ventures or investments. In an era where journalism is increasingly produced by large media conglomerates with vast non-journalistic holdings, and where the barrier between editorial and commercial is withering, the problem has returned to the fore with a vengeance. The major TV networks have used their news programs to promote their other media fare in news stories, such as when ABC News promoted Disney’s 2001 film Pearl Harbor or played up the fictitious town of Push, Nevada, which was the name of a short-lived primetime series. 19 ABC News also seemingly killed stories that cast negative light on parent company Disney’s other holdings, including a report on paedophiles being employed at a Disney theme park (Helmore, 2000, p. 7). NBC News featured more than twice the amount of news coverage of the 2002 Winter Olympics than did ABC World News Tonight, and nearly seven times more coverage than CBS Evening News. Is it any surprise that NBC paid for the rights to broadcasting the Winter Olympics? (Solomon, 2003). CBS was not to be outdone. In 2000 its news programming did frequent “reports” on its “reality” program, Survivor, and it lent a journalist to do a weekly interview program to discuss developments on another “reality” show, Big Brother (Carter, 2000, pp. C1, C11). In 2001 AOL Time Warner’s CNN Headline News channel acknowledged that it was plugging other AOL Time Warner products and channels in its news headlines; the practice was in fact a logical outcome of the corporate commitment to “synergy” (Jensen, 2001). “The drive to achieve synergy,” journalist Ken Auletta stated in 2002, “is often journalism’s poison” (www.iwantmedia.com, 2002).
The corporate/commercial pressure on news often takes place indirectly, and is therefore less likely to be recognized as such by journalists or the public. The flip side of the reluctance to spend money on investigative or international coverage, and the reluctance to antagonize powerful sources, is an increased emphasis on largely trivial stories, that give the appearance of controversy and conflict but rarely have anything to do with any significant public issue. Study after study reveals a general decline in the amount of “hard news” relative to fluff. 20 Some argued that in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack, US news media had seen the light and returned to their “historic mission,” but such fantasies were short-lived (Trigoboff, 2002b, p. 18). A central preoccupation of the news has become the activities of celebrities, especially with regard to their personal lives (Shales, 2002b, p. 23). So it was that during 2001 and 2002 the news was dominated with stories about Winona Ryder’s shoplifting trial, Robert Blake’s murder arrest, and Gary Condit’s affairs (Moraes, 2002a, p. C7). A politician stands a far greater chance to become the object of news media scrutiny if she or he is rumored to have not paid 10 parking tickets or if they failed to pay a bar bill than if they used their power to quietly funnel billions of public dollars to powerful special interests. The justification for this caliber of journalism is that these stories are popular and therefore profitable, and commercial news needs to “give the people what they want,” but to a certain extent, leaving aside the question of whether journalism should be determined by marketing polls, this is circular logic (Greppi, 2002, p. 2). The motor force behind this journalism is as much supply as demand. It is cheaper and easier to cover than “hard” news, and never enmeshes the media firm in a controversy with anyone in power, while providing an illusion of controversy to the public. Over time whatever taste the public has for this type of fare is only encouraged through extensive exposure. Had a similar commitment to the more expensive and risky expose´s of government and corporate corruption been made, one suspects a public taste might have been developed for those stories as well. But that is not an option the people are given.
Celebrities and trivial personal indiscretion are not all that commercial journalism favors. Likewise, stories that emphasize violence meet the commercial criteria as well. The news, especially television news, is awash in stories about traffic and airplane accidents, fires and murders (Wang, 2001, p. 16). The Washington serial sniper story of October 2002 was a textbook example of this phenomenon. It generated high ratings and took no great skill or expense to cover. It received round-the-clock coverage, yet the news media had little to report, so much of the “news” was idle speculation, bland repetition, or hashing over rumors. As Ted Koppel put it, the media were “going nuts” over what he termed a “dreadful but relatively minor threat” in the bigger scheme of things (Lowry, B., 2002). It was, by and large, a waste of time, but a commercially lucrative waste of time.
Another crucial way in which the commercialization of journalism covertly alters the news is by constantly pushing journalism to be directed to the lucrative markets desired by media owners and big ticket advertisers. Given the constant pressure for profit, this concern with generating news content that will attract the most lucrative target audience has grown to an obsession. 21 The days when journalism was a public service directed at the entire population—obviously never entirely accurate—are long gone. Today much of journalism is increasingly directed at the middle class and the upper class while the working class and the poor have been written off altogether (Callahan and Helliker, 2001, p. A8). Coverage of labor issues has plummeted, for example, in the past generation and barely exists any longer in the news media. 22 Part of any explanation for the relatively nonexistent and distorted treatment of African-Americans and Latinos in the news owes to their not being especially attractive economically to advertisers (Johnson, 2002b, p. 3D). Ben Bagdikian captured this class bias well in a 2001 essay:
If the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped steadily for twenty years it would be front page and leading broadcast news day after day until the government took action. That 32 million of our population have their housing, food, and clothing “index” drop steadily for more than 30 years is worth only an occasional feature story about an individual or statistical fragments in the back pages of our most influential news organizations. (Bagdikian, 2001) (Westin, 2000, p. 5)
Along these lines, a survey released by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in 2003 showed that most Americans had no idea that nearly 33 million of their compatriots lived in fairly dire poverty; most of them thought the total was between one and five million (U.S. Newswire, 2003).
The flip side to the marginalization of the poor and working class from the news, has been the elevation of business to center stage. If labor reporting went from being a standard position on nearly all major news media two or three generations ago to being extinct by 2003, business reporting skyrocketed, to the point where business news and general news seemingly converged. Although the majority of Americans have little direct interest in the stock market—and it is far from the most pressing immediate economic issue in their lives—the operating assumption in the news media became that all Americans are active stock traders with a passionate concern about equity and bond markets. Schools of journalism have responded to this development, and chairs in business journalism have mushroomed across college campuses. “Business journalism is hot,” a Columbia University J-School official noted. “Journalists see it as a career track” (Oleck, 2001, p. 16).
Regrettably, however, the turn to business journalism has not meant that the affairs of corporations and investors have been subjected to hard, critical scrutiny in terms of how they affect public life. It has not even meant necessarily that there has been increased scrutiny of business behavior to protect investors and consumers (www.essentialaction.org, 2000). To the contrary, business journalism is, as one observer put it, “teeming with reverence for the accumulation of wealth” (Solomon, 2001). To some extent this is due to the rah-rah capitalism ethos that marinates the corporate media as much as corporate America, but it is also due to the pressures highlighted above: reliance upon business sources and marginalizing critical sources, use of corporate PR as the basis for news, and fear of antagonizing corporate advertisers (Fost, 2002a, 2002b). The corruption of business reporting was such, with puff pieces extolling the virtues of this company or that, that in 2002 the New York Stock Exchange was pressing for regulations that would require journalists to disclose the financial interests of the stock market analysts they used in their news stories (Boland, 2002, p. 1). By 2002 mainstream media critics concurred that business journalism, rather than monitoring the excesses of the business expansion of the 1990s, actually played a strong part in magnifying them and “inflating the bubble” (Kurtz, 2002b, p. A1; Longman, 2002). As one journalist put it, “the bubble was filled with hot air from hyperventilating journalists” (Solomon, 2002). Yet few journalists ever questioned the turn away from labor and toward business. It was incorporated into the professional code and most journalists internalized it as proper and beyond reproach. Even today after the massive corporate scandals of 2001–2, the central role of business news and the virtual absence of news concerning the working class and poor is taken for granted by professional journalists. It is not seen as “selfcensorship” to shape the news in such a manner. That is the genius of professionalism as a form of regulation.
It is with regard to the corporate scandals of 2001 and 2002 that all of these core problems for contemporary journalism come together: lowball budgets, deification of official sources, lack of investigative work, enhanced attention to the editorial concerns of advertisers, emphasis on the trivial, the glorification of business and the exile of the poor and working class. The results were one of the darkest and most depressing episodes in the recent history of US journalism, and its nearly thorough abrogation of its role as a watchdog over power, as a feisty Fourth Estate. The news coverage played a large, perhaps even decisive, role in the collapse of anything remotely close to a democratic resolution to this crisis.
The crisis emerged when Enron filed for bankruptcy in 2001, followed by WorldCom’s $107 billion free fall and bankruptcy in 2002 (Romero and Atlas, 2002, pp. A1, A12). Arthur Andersen, Global Crossing and a host of other firms followed in the wake (Greider, 2002, pp. 18–22). What was striking about these historically unprecedented corporate collapses was not simply that they were fraught with fraud and corruption, with workers, taxpayers and investors bilked out of billions and billions of dollars. After all, that might be considered capitalism as usual, if you can get away with it, and many did and do. What was most striking about these scandals, as two journalists put it, was that “the fraud occurred in the most heav ily regulated and monitored area of corporate activity” (Weissman and Mokhiber, 2002). Enron was described by Charles Lewis, the journalist responsible for much of the investigation into its activities, as “a company inordinately dependent on government favors” (Herbert, 2002). Much of the fraud perpetrated by Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing and the others was the result of their being able to have politicians push through highly dubious “deregulation” schemes which opened the door to billion dollar ripoffs that would have been impossible otherwise (Chaffin, 2002, p. 20; Wheat, 2002, pp. 34–42). Along these lines, firms like Enron and Arthur Andersen were among the largest political contributors to political candidates in the nation; although the majority of money went to Republicans, Democrats had a solid place at the trough (Bliven, 2002; Lewis, C., 2002, p. A9; Multinational Monitor, 2002a, p. 44). Global Crossing “tossed more money around town than Enron,” observed Business Week, and, if anything, it spread its largesse more toward Democrats than Republicans as it sought government support for its activities (Borrus, 2002, p. 49). In short, this was not a business scandal, this was a political scandal of the highest magnitude. It went directly at the issue of corruption in governance and the broader political economy that is built into the system and that takes place across the government, most notably at its very highest levels.
In this context, let us consider the nature of the news coverage of the corporate scandals. Most striking, despite the vast resources devoted to business journalism in the 1990s, the media missed the developing story in toto. It failed in its role as an early alarm system for social problems (Schell, 2002). It is worth noting that by the mid-1990s the alternative press was beginning to report on evidence of Enron’s chicanery, and Ralph Nader and his cohort were aggressively pointing to the highly dubious nature of Enron’s and WorldCom’s activities, among others, but this was resolutely ignored by the mainstream (CounterPunch, 2002, pp. 1, 2). Indeed, as the New York Times later conceded, when WorldCom chief executive officer (CEO) Bernard Ebbers spoke to the National Press Club in 2000, as the Ponzi Scheme WorldCom had been using to grow was unraveling, the assembled journalists gave him a loud round of applause and the mood was “celebratory.” 23 Enron was named by Fortune magazine as “America’s Most Innovative Company” every single year from 1995 to 2000 (Schiller, 2002). A data search of mainstream news (and business news) coverage for the word “Enron” prior to 2001 finds “little but praise for its market innovations” (Ledbetter, 2003, p. A29). It subsequently became known that these firms had courted the media with the same vigilance and skill they courted politicians. Both the New York Times and Viacom had major business ventures with Enron, for example, and Enron paid several prominent journalists amounts ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 to “consult” for them (Blow, 2002; Kurtz, 2002a, p. C1; Smith, 2000, p. A3). Enron played all the angles; it was an original underwriter for a major PBS six-part series on globalization that eventually aired in 2002, with Enron’s name removed from the list of funders (FAIR Media Advisory, 2002).
The financial collapse of these firms by 2001 and 2002, along with the transparent use of fraudulent and illegal techniques to bilk people out of billions finally made this a news story, a very big news story. Moreover, there were grounds to think this would be a political scandal of the highest magnitude, arguably on a par with or exceeding Watergate. For starters, President George W. Bush, Vice President Cheney, as well as their administration had extremely close relations with Enron and its executives. Enron CEO Kenneth Lay and his fellow Enron executives had also been major contributors to George W. Bush’s political career (Dunbar et al., 2002, pp. 1, 2, 6; Herbert, 2002, p. A27). At a 1997 party for then Enron CEO Rich Kinder, at which Enron executives joked about using bogus accounting tricks to make “a kazillion dollars” and attended by then Texas Governor George W. Bush, former president George H. W. Bush told Kinder: “You have been fantastic to the Bush family. I don’t think anybody did more than you did to support [my son] George.” 24 The payoff for Enron of having George W. Bush enter the White House was immediate: its executives played a prominent role in helping Vice President Cheney develop an energy policy in 2001, and the Bush administration helped reduce Enron’s culpability (and that of many other corporations) for the California energy scandal in the newly deregulated market in 2001 (Leopold, 2002).
One would have imagined the Democrats would have had a field day with this issue. After all, the comparatively trivial Whitewater scandal generated a special prosecutor who had more than five years and a large staff and budget to have open season on any aspect of President Clinton’s conduct, though no crimes concerning Whitewater were ever established. And had the Democrats gone to war on his issue, journalists would have had ample “official source” input to warrant massive coverage of the corporate scandals as a political crisis of the highest magnitude. But Democrats did not pursue this route, for any number of reasons, but one in particular stands out: The Democrats, too, were culpable. They, too, had presided over the deregulation fiascos and they too had corporate blood money filling their campaign coffers. 25 If this story was pursued, there was no telling where it would stop. Consequently, the Democrats, led by long-time deregulation proponent Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, shared the Republicans’ desire to downplay the political aspects of the crisis and convert it into a business scandal, where a few rogue CEOs stepped out of line and needed the long arm of the law to corral them so investors could sleep in peace again (Oppel, Jr., 2003, pp. C1, C10). Accordingly, with no official sources pushing this as a political scandal, journalists easily converted it into a business story. Some of the reporting in the business and trade press was first rate, but the crucial link between corporate crime and political corruption all but disappeared. Accordingly, too, the story then became decidedly less important and was relegated to the business pages, to be replaced by whatever the official sources wished to talk about, like the prospective war on Iraq. This inability to provide criticism of the system as a whole—even when it is well deserved—is an inherent flaw of professional journalism.
But the petering out of the press coverage of the corporate scandals of 2001 and 2002 went beyond the traditional limitations of professional journalism. It also reflected the core problem of entrusting the news to large, profitmotivated and self-interested business organizations. The CEO of the New York Times Company put it well in 2002:
Historically, the press’s ability to act as a check on the actions of government has been helped by the fact that the two institutions are constitutionally separated, organizationally and financially. The press does not depend on government officials either for its standing or its resources.
But it has a much more intricate relationship with big business. Today’s news media are themselves frequently a part of large, often global corporations dependent on advertising revenue that, increasingly, comes from other large corporations. As public companies themselves, the news media are under the same kind of pressure to create “shareholder value,” by reducing costs and increasing earnings, as are other public companies. And they face numerous conflicts of interest as they grow larger and more diversified. (Lewis, R., 2002, p. A23)
(Westin, 2000, p. 5)
In short, the corporate news media have a vested interest in the corporate system. The largest media firms are members in good standing in the corporate community and closely linked through business relations, shared investors, interlocking directors, and shared political values with each other. This pushes the corporate news media, as Tom Shales puts it, to “paint as rosy a picture of the economy as possible” (Shales, 2002a, p. 33). This encouraged the press coverage of the corporate political scandals of 2001 and 2002 to revert to a “crisis management mode,” where the structural and institutional determinants of the corruption are unexamined and unexposed (Reed, 2002, p. 31). By golly, the system works.
There is yet one further layer to this story that is necessary for a full understanding of the news coverage of the corporate scandals of 2001 and 2002, and that concerns the conduct of the media corporations themselves. These firms are hardly innocent bystanders perched on the moral high ground as they report upon the Enrons and Global Crossings of the world. Their CEOs, like the executives at Enron, have seen their salaries shoot off the charts while earnings stagnate and layoffs abound (Goldsmith, 2001, pp. 1, 48; Krugman, 2002b, p. A17). Their CEOs, too, made killings selling off vastly overpriced stock when they knew their firm was a clunker but the media were still reporting on it as if it was an up and comer (Gimein, 2002, pp. 64–74; Larsen et al., 2002b, p. 1; Mermigas, 2002, p. 20). Media firms, too, a` la WorldCom and Enron, traditionally employed questionable accounting practices that inflated profit expectations and fleeced workers (Byrnes and Lowry, 2002, p. 56; Conniff, 2002). Moreover, a stunning number of major media corporations and executives were under investigation for criminal activities by 2002, including Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Charter Communications, and Vivendi Universal (Economist, 2002a, pp. 55–57; Hofmeister, 2002; Johnson and Larsen, 2003, p. 20; Mallet and Larsen, 2002, p. 1; Reuters dispatch, 2002; Streitfeld, 2002; Wall Street Journal Online, 2002). In keeping with the notion that the closer an industry is to being explicitly regulated, the higher the likelihood of extreme corruption, media firms are a natural hotspot for flimflam. In 2002 five former executives at the bankrupt Adelphia Communications (a regulated cable TV company) were arrested and charged with “orchestrating one of the largest frauds to take place at a US public company” (Larsen et al., 2002a, p. 1). The media company on the top of the corporate crime blotter was none other than AOL Time Warner, which faced a series of lawsuits and criminal investigations from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice. It was charged with heavily distorting its books, including inflating its advertising revenues one time by nearly $200 million (Angwin and Peers, 2002; Economist, 2002b, pp. 57–8; Grimes, 2002, p. 1; Kirkpatrick, 2002, pp. B1, B14; Kirkpatrick and Hansell, 2002, pp. C1, C2; Larsen, 2002, p. 19; Peers and Cohen, 2002). Some of AOL Time Warner’s dubious deals that were under investigation by the SEC included complex transactions with the discredited Qwest Communications and WorldCom (Kirkpatrick and Romero, 2002, pp. C1, C4). Media firms historically have been reluctant to cover their own misdeeds in their news media, and they could hardly be enthusiastic about a no-holds-barred journalism that would get to the bottom of the corporate crime issue and let the chips fall where they may (Maguire, 2002).
In combination, then, the press coverage of the corporate crime scandal of 2001 and 2002 helped it go from being a potential hurricane to a mild evening rain shower. “Looking back on 2002,” a public interest group observed, “it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the big corporations won. Confronted with a crisis of epic proportions, they emerged with bloodied noses and sullied reputations, but little more” (Multinational Monitor, 2002b, p. 5). In the summer of 2002, when the crisis was at its peak, both Bush and Cheney gave speeches railing against corporate misconduct, while at the same time aggressively fundraising corporations and wealthy individuals for campaign contributions (Nieves and Bumiller, 2002, p. A19). But even before then, in the spring, the business press acknowledged the storm had passed, and corporate reform would be, at most, modest (Dunham et al., 2002, pp. 30–2; Kuttner, 2002b, p. 24). It was left to syndicated columnist Molly Ivins to put the matter in perspective. In a column outlining the chummy connection between the relevant members of Congress responsible for overseeing the investigation of corporate fraud with the very industries most likely to have engaged in crime, Ivins concluded: “They’ve already called off the reform effort; it’s over. Corporate muscle showed up and shut it down … Bottom line: It’s all going to happen again. We learned zip from our entire financial collapse. Our political system is too bought-off to respond intelligently” (Ivins, 2002). The economist Mark Weisbrot captured the irony of the situation: “Our Congress and the executive branch have become so corrupted by our system of legalized bribery—political campaign contributions—that they cannot even enact positive reforms that are desired by most of the business class” (Weisbrot, 2003).
So far I have discussed the direct and indirect commercial pressures upon journalism and their almost entirely negative impact. There is also a broader political economic pressure, one that is magnified by the increasingly explicit commandment to market news to target audiences. In a largely depoliticized society, there may be little effective demand for political journalism. Depoliticization is built into the broader political culture of the United States, and it has grown arguably over the decades; the media tend to encourage the process but they are not primarily responsible for it. As I mentioned above, it is often noted that democracy requires journalism; what is less frequently emphasized is that journalism requires democracy. Unless there is strong political culture there will be little demand for excellent journalism. And if, as will tend to accompany a depoliticized society, the political system is corrupt and removed from popular influence, journalists have less incentive to produce hard-hitting expose´s, because they know nothing tangible in the form of political reform will result. So what has emerged in the United States is that a significant number of outstanding investigative reports are done, but there is far less follow-up by other journalists to push the story along, especially if no one in power is excited by the story. The stories fall like stones to the bottom on the ocean; there is no echo effect.
This dilemma leads to a fork in the road for the corporations that direct the US news media. Do they attempt to battle the tide, provide hard-hitting and powerful political journalism even if it costs more and may not have a great deal of immediate market demand, in the hope of generating a strong market for the news down the road? (Loven, 2002). This is made ever more difficult because professional journalism has a tendency to avoid controversy and passion such that it is not well suited to rousing the citizenry. What is passed off as serious news is often the dreadfully dull reporting of debates or pronouncements among people in power (Bernstein, 2000a, pp. 13, 17; Economist, October 7, 2000, p. 42). Or do they acknowledge depoliticization, especially among the commercially crucial 18–34 age group, and tailor the news to make it more entertaining and engaging to that target audience? Do they, in other words, opt for what Susan Douglas calls the “narcissism bias,” meaning news that accepts and therefore encourages political withdrawal by emphasizing trivia and “lifestyle” reporting? (Douglas, 2003, p. 9). The news media have opted for this latter route as it makes far more commercial sense in the short term, but it also undermines the raison d’eˆtre of journalism (Barringer, 2002c, pp. C1, C5; Burkman, 2002; Johnson, 2002a). If people want light entertainment and unchallenging tidbits for their journalism, it makes far more sense to watch a comedy program than the news, and many Americans do exactly that. One 2000 study showed that more than one-third of Americans under 30 regard comedy shows like Jay Leno’s Tonight Show as their primary source for news (Williams and Delli Carpini, 2002). Accordingly, a significant trend that has emerged in recent years is for local commercial television stations to discontinue their news programming (Schneider, 2002, p. 22; Trigoboff, 2002a, p. 29). After watering down and dumbing down TV news to the point it is a standing joke, while making a killing with inexpensive and inane fare, stations eventually find they have a shrinking audience so they close down the store. They have stripped the public airwaves for parts, so to speak.
One measure of the deep and severe crisis afflicting US journalism is to consider the morale and assessment of working editors and journalists. For decades journalists were highly sensitive to outside criticism of their profession, and proud of their role in society. Bookstores teemed with volumes penned by journalists telling of their impressive accomplishments. No more. In what is almost a sea change in temperament, the morale of journalists has gone into a tailspin as a result of the commercial assault on the news. Prominent journalists and media figures like John Hockenberry, David Halberstam, PBS president Pat Mitchell and Walter Cronkite decry the current situation, with Cronkite going so far as to question whether democracy can “even survive” (Halberstam, 2000, pp. 23–6; Margolis, 2002; McLeod, 2002; Ramon, 2002). Rank and file reporters compile volumes on the decline of journalism, replete with case study after case study. 26 Even Leonard Downie, Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, the current national editor and associate editor of the Washington Post, in their 2002 The News About the News: American journal ism in peril make a devastating critique of the bankruptcy of US journalism, significantly due to commercial pressures, that would have been unthinkable two decades earlier (Downie, Jr. and Kaiser, 2002). Study after study, scientific or anecdotal, confirm this trend in chilling detail. Harvard’s Howard Gardner and two other scholars published a long-term study of journalists in 2001, finding that journalists are “overwhelmed” by the commercial pressures on their craft, and find contemporary journalism a “nightmare.” They despair because they are not “allowed to pursue the mission that inspired them to enter the field” (Gardner et al., 2001, Chap. 7). The Columbia Journalism Review published the results of a survey of TV news directors that concluded that, due overwhelmingly to commercial factors, “pessimism rules in TV newsrooms” (Potter, 2002, p. 90). Linda Foley, the president of the journalists union, the Newspaper Guild, reports that the number one concern of her members, far more than wages and job security, is the decline of their craft to commercial pressures. 27
Contemporary US journalism still has its defenders, of course, though they are fewer in ranks and they appear to have less swagger (Opel, 2002, p. E8; Parker, 2000, p. 20). The defense ultimately falls back upon the position that this is the media system we have, it is the best possible system for our society, so anything it generates has got to be good. And insofar as the news media raise these concerns about the commercialization of journalism before the public—something done very, very rarely—it tends to start and finish with the assumption of the inviolability of the status quo, hence handcuffing critical analysis. Increasingly, in academia and on the margins, however, sober voices are beginning to think (and write and speak) what was once unthinkable: is the corporate, commercial regulation of journalism compatible with a democratic society? Jay Harris, former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, argues that the media are “so essential to our national democracy” that they should not “be managed primarily according to the demands of the market or the dictates of a handful of large shareholders” (Harris, Jay, 2001, p. 6). James Carey of the Columbia Journalism School, arguably the most influential US journalism scholar of the past generation, concluded a 2002 essay on the state of the news with the somber assessment that “the reform of journalism will only occur when news organizations are disengaged from the global entertainment and information industries that increasingly contain them.” As Carey added, “Alas the press may have to rely upon a democratic state to create the conditions necessary for a democratic press to flourish and for journalists to be restored to their proper role as orchestrators of the conversation of a democratic culture” (Carey, 2002, p. 89). The political economic analysis of the media may well be entering its moment in the sun.